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Driverless, connected cars: Ann Arbor as an early adopter

By 2021, Ann Arbor could become the first American city with a shared fleet of networked, driverless vehicles.| Medium Read
University of Michigan researchers work to make Ann Arbor the first American city with a shared fleet of connected and driverless vehicles by 2021. The cars of the future are to be much safer than the cars driven by humans, they will be battery operated and tailored to the needs of a particular trip.

By 2021, Ann Arbor could become the first American city with a shared fleet of networked, driverless vehicles. That’s the goal of the Mobility Transformation Center, a cross-campus University of Michigan initiative that also involves government and industry representatives.

“Ann Arbor will be seen as the leader in 21st-century mobility,” said Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). “We want to demonstrate fully driverless vehicles operating within the whole infrastructure of the city within an eight-year timeline and to show that these can be safe, effective and commercially successful.”

Led by UMTRI and Michigan Engineering, the center involves researchers from all over the university, including urban planning, energy technology, information technology, policy and social sciences.

If these researchers have their way, by the turn of the decade, Ann Arborites could be using smartphones to hail shared self-driving cars for their morning and evening commutes. They could be scheduling driverless vans for summer trips and arranging autonomous rides for their teens to get to sports practices, for example. Elderly residents could find that they’re able to enjoy virtually the same mobility and freedom to travel as they had when they drove themselves. That’s the vision, at least.

Advances to the sensors, cameras and mapping technologies that would replace the person in the driver’s seat are coming from nearly every major auto company as well as Google and university researchers across the country, including U-M. Industry officials say the question is not “if,” but rather “when” these technologies become available to the general public. Systems such as advanced cruise control, lane-keeping and even automated parallel parking are being rolled out already.

Why driverless?

Why the push toward driverless? There are a host of reasons, but perhaps the most compelling is safety. The 32,000 deaths from car and truck crashes on U.S. roads last year send a clear collective message to Sweatman: People aren’t always good drivers. In general, he contends, we’re not built for the kind of massive multitasking and long-term focus that it takes to operate a vehicle safely all the time.

“Humans are not suited to monitoring tasks like driving,” Sweatman said. “Human attention is easily diverted.”

Across the globe, traffic fatalities clear the million mark every year. When Larry Burns, a professor of practice at Michigan Engineering, was head of research and development at GM in the ‘90s, the numbers gnawed at him until he started to raise hard questions.

“Why are we living in a society where we’re willing to tolerate car crashes?” Burns remembers asking. “Worldwide, 1.2 million people die on roadways every year. That’s epidemic in scale.”

With the growing transportation demands of a rising global population, is there any hope of reducing those numbers? The U-M researchers say there is, and the solution isn’t more speed limits, airbags or distracted driving policies. It’s getting the human out of the control loop, they say.

“Bees swarm. Geese flock. And they’re not running into each other,” Burns continued. “There has to be a way in which cars can move around and not crash. We know the algorithms exist. That’s part of the exciting thing about driverless or automated vehicles. We’re developing cars that don’t crash.”

“Why are we living in a society where we’re willing to tolerate car crashes? Worldwide, 1.2 million people die on roadways every year. That’s epidemic in scale.”

– Larry Burns, a professor of practice at Michigan Engineering

It’s a notion widely accepted in the auto industry. Robotic vehicles with multiple cameras and lasers could see in your blind spots, predict dangerous situations and pay full-time attention in ways that people can’t or don’t.

At the same time, autonomous vehicles have other potential benefits. They could dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption because cars that don’t crash can be lighter-weight, the researchers say. They could lead to new city layouts because shared fleets of self-driving cars wouldn’t need to spend so much time in parking lots. And they could save people time. With a computer at the wheel, passengers would be free to safely text, work, read and converse – activities Burns says they’re partial to doing in the car anyway. In today’s super-connected world, it often seems that driving is the distraction, Burns says.

Re-imagining transportation, starting in Ann Arbor

All told, autonomous vehicles could change how people and goods move around in a way that the auto industry hasn’t seen since its inception. Fundamentally, the cars of the present aren’t all that different from the machines Carl Benz invented in the late nineteenth century. They’re mechanical. They’re powered by combustion. And they require a person to make them go.

“We’ve now entered into a period where the technology and the business models are coming together to allow us to break out of this 100-year dependence on what we’ve always known,” Burns said.

For self-driving vehicles to bring this revolution, they have to be at the center of a reimagined transportation system. Replacing conventional cars with driverless models alone won’t do it. To achieve the maximum benefits in safety, energy and land use, as well as time, the vehicles of tomorrow would be networked, both with each other and the surrounding infrastructure, the researchers say.

Through the Mobility Transformation Center, UMTRI is right now in the midst of the nation’s largest street-level connected vehicle experiment, called Safety Pilot. Some 3,000 area residents have allowed researchers to install wireless devices on their cars so that they can exchange data with other vehicles, as well as nodes at traffic lights, intersections and roadway curves. The experiment spans roughly 73 lane miles in the northeast part of the city.

The devices transmit vehicles’ position, speed and direction and they beep to let drivers know about a potentially dangerous situation – the driver is going around a curve too fast, for example, or a nearby vehicle is suddenly braking or changing lanes.

“Ten times a second, these vehicles are hearing from the vehicles in their immediate vicinity and assembling a picture of your surroundings so you don’t have to,” Sweatman said.

The test was slated to end in summer 2013, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrated continued the $22 million project another six months. At present, researchers are studying the 11 billion safety messages the vehicles exchanged during the first phase.

Safety Pilot is setting a fundamental base for tomorrow’s mobility system, Sweatman said. Building on it, in October, the U-M Board of Regents approved plans for a one-of-a-kind driverless car test environment near North Campus. The 30-acre, $6.5 million facility – a joint project with industry and government – will simulate a dynamic cityscape where researchers can test how the vehicles perform in complex urban settings. In its roughly three lane miles with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, buildings and even construction barrels, they’ll be able to run through situations that could cause tragedy on a public road, but happen only rarely in the real world. It’s expected to be completed by next fall.

Driverless cars and connected vehicle technology could get society most of the way toward what Burns calls “a new design DNA for the automobile.” To go the last mile, so to speak, vehicles would need to be shared.

“Breaking the link between ownership and access is a vital stepping stone on this path,” said Jonathan Levine, a professor of urban planning. “These vehicles will be expensive at the beginning, too expensive to own independently. That will be a big hurdle to adoption. If we have the option of sharing that cost with other users, that becomes a way for this new kind of system to be affordable to many, many more of us.”

So why Ann Arbor? One reason, the researchers say, is that the first steps have already been taken, with Safety Pilot underway and the test environment in the design phase. The city government and public transit authority are supportive too. And the level of community involvement in Safety Pilot suggests that area residents would be prime early adopters.

“Ann Arbor has a large carless population with students at the university and a large technologically savvy population for whom adopting a new system is not going to be a stretch,” Levine said.

But, wait. Computers do crash

Levine reminded that technology doesn’t deploy itself. People put it out into the world, and they decide to use it or not. The researchers know that society may be skeptical of relying on driverless “cars that don’t crash.” After all, computers do crash. And networked systems like the electrical grid do fail.

“There is a weird conundrum,” Sweatman said, “that it’s a technology that could completely transform safety issues. But at the same time we have to be very careful not the disturb safety while we’re getting to that point.”

But, Burns adds, “that’s what we do as engineers.”

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